In my last post, I wrote about ways to argue constructively. Here I would like to briefly add some things to track if you can manage to get yourself to be your own observer during an argument.
Three Crucial Things to Monitor
During an argument there are at least three characteristics of your conversation that need to be monitored unless, of course, you enjoy repeating the same old worn out fighting scripts.
1. Monitor the Total Time in Minutes
Everyone has a threshold for how long they can engage in emotionally intense conversation (that’s psychobabble for “fight”). You can measure it in minutes. I had to learn this the hard way when I had a young teenage daughter. It seemed like every serious talk ended in a disaster, until I started watching the clock. After 15 minutes I would end the tense conversation, to be continued later. It was like magic. As soon as I was respectful of my daughter’s developing threshold for emotional intensity, things didn’t go sideways nearly as often.
This principal of arguing or “discussing” in brief segments can be applied to a variety of relationships. If you are a person who likes to talk the whole thing out (think: 3 hours), then you are probably only going to be rewarded with success enough to keep doing it this way. The rest of the time people will be angry and get hurt and you won’t recognize that the simple act of counting the minutes could save both of you a lot of grief.
2. Monitor the Air-Time Ratio
There are at least three quick ways to see who is seizing power in an argument. First, watch for which one of you constantly interrupts. Second, watch for who dominates the air-time. In other words, you want to aim for a balance in the number of minutes that you are talking and the how much the other person is talking. People who hog the air-time are usually sending an argument on a collision course with misunderstanding. A third way that one person will create a power differential in the argument is talking over the other person. Of these three, monitoring the air-time ratio is usually the best way to keep the relative power even, fair, and respectful.
How to Monitor the Air-Time
If you tend to do most of the talking, just stop and listen. Yes, you can resist the urge to keep talking. The proof of this is that if someone like your boss or principal client called in the middle of it, you would probably be able to switch gears quickly.
If you tend to do most of the listening, quietly say something like, “I would appreciate it if you would listen as much as I am listening to you” (no sarcasm). Of course, you could argue about who is actually hogging the air time, but this would just show that you have a ways to go to learn how to switch into observer mode. If you really can’t settle it, record some of you’re arguments and send the mp3 file to a service like CastingsWords.com to transcribe it. Count the words for each person.
If that seems extreme, keep in mind that there are sometimes simple tweeks that quickly bring the air-time into a fair balance. For example, usually one person is faster on their feet in an argument. The words come to them quickly and easily. If you are that person, you may need to let more silence hang for few seconds so that the other person can collect his or her thoughts.
3. Monitor Your Breathing
Finally, it’s important to keep track of your breathing. Yes, it really works. Your rate of breathing is the best thing to follow for an indication of how amped up you are with adrenaline. You could monitor your heart rate, but you need some equipment. Also, your breathing is something that you can change immediately and directly and your heart will eventually stop pounding as a byproduct of your efforts to force yourself to breath as if you were relaxed.
You Really Can Walk and Chew Gum
It may seem like a lot at first, but learning to slip into observer mode to monitor these three aspects of an argument can be very rewarding. These are the kinds of skills I coach couples to learn during marriage counseling. With practice you really can learn to argue and watch yourself argue at the same time. It can become almost as easy as walking and chewing gum.